Cancel Culture is coming for you

Not speaking up in the hope that it will pass you by is an illusion. It won’t save you

Artillery Row

This article follows on from another article here, which received a response from Professor Frans Berkhout, the Co-Chair of the Freedom of Expression Standing Advisory Group

Why does any university require a committee on freedom of expression? The right to speak freely, to challenge and be challenged in an open exchange of ideas, should be the lifeblood of any university education. It should, literally, go without saying. If it needs to be said, something is amiss. 

That the reply to our article ‘How King’s College London became Cancel College’, which detailed the worsening climate of censoriousness on campus, emanates from one Frans Berkhout, co-chair of the College’s Robespierrian sounding ‘Freedom of Expression Standing Advisory Group’, at the very least suggests an institution that has an awkward relationship with liberal values. And, as the contents of his response rather predictably revealed, (at the end of our original article) Mr Berkhout seems to possess what may be charitably described as a minimalist appreciation of the concept of free speech, and a feeble grasp of the contours of contemporary cancel culture. 

Mr Berkhout contends that King’s College takes the principle of freedom of expression ‘very seriously’ and that because the university organises over 300 speaking events a year, the premise of our article is unfounded. Presumably Mr Berkhout is a functionary charged with creating the best possible optics for the College, and evidently his response to the concerns raised by our widely-read article is: move along now, nothing to see here. 

However, just because an institution hosts numerous public meetings proves nothing at all about any professed commitment to freedom of expression on campus. To that extent, Mr Berkhout’s message is little more than an exercise in deflection from the main thrust of our article. This was not that the university routinely cancels events, but that over recent years an increasingly illiberal atmosphere has taken hold in which students and staff find it difficult to speak beyond the bounds of conformity to a range of fashionable ‘social justice’ causes and ideological stances that the university endorses. Interestingly, Mr Berkhout provides no refutation of our central claim. His silence on this point is a revealing sign of the university’s actual commitment to the principles of free speech.

The College seems content not only to accommodate this intolerance, but to facilitate its spread

Cancel culture at King’s, as our article was at pains to stress, takes the form of leaving students and staff to suffer at the hands of eager offence-takers who stop at nothing to report those with whom they disagree as purveyors of ‘hate’. The unambiguous agenda is social obliteration: traducing the reputation and character of anyone expressing undesirable opinions with the goal of disciplining not only the direct target of their opprobrium but also the wider community. 

To exercise freedom of expression in such a hostile environment is to actively invite reprisals. Far from protecting the rights of its students and staff, the College seems content not only to accommodate this intolerance, but to facilitate its spread by launching the investigatory machinery on anyone accused of wrongthink from either inside or outside the university. Mr Berkhout sidestepped the case of the young student who is under investigation for making a harmless joke on social media. 

Universities have been able to punish students and staff, sometimes severely, below the radar. Mr Berkhout may not be aware of the increasing number of people subjected to misconduct proceedings for speech crimes, but the senior administration will certainly know of expulsions and sanctions, as threatened with the likes of the aforementioned student. Anyone caught in the inquisition is bound by confidentiality, but this can trap the accused into isolation and helplessness, awaiting their judgement by people who quite possibly abhor their beliefs.

Indeed, we drew attention to the manifestly one-sided application of the disciplinary apparatus. Staff and students are assailed with internal communications on correct thinking. In the past, the propaganda of identity politics was a fringe performance, but now it’s on the main stage, as if the primary purpose of the university is to celebrate favoured groups rather than setting the highest intellectual standards. Woke mission statements are so prominent that they seem designed to scare any lingering traditionalists into compliance. If the senior management don’t understand the chilling effect of this explicit ideological positioning on the intellectual atmosphere, they are naïve. More likely, though, this is a wielding of bureaucratic power to instil a predisposition towards self-censorship.

In this regard, given Mr Berkhout’s role in overseeing freedom of expression on campus, it would be useful to pose some questions to him. In order to safeguard the College’s supposedly ‘deep commitment’ to free expression, what is the scope for anyone on campus to voice – openly – reservations on, for example, the ideology of the Black Lives Matter movement, or transgenderism, or the concept of ‘racial microaggressions’, or the steadily developing policy of ‘decolonising the curriculum’? Is it acceptable that people should have epithets of racism, bigotry and fascism screamed at them for trying to express reasoned points against some of these shibboleths? Would the university defend them? And, since Mr Berkhout refers to protests at events, what disciplinary actions were taken against those who aggressively sought to silence speakers? Did the College enforce its codes against bullying and harassment?

The original article alluded to the deleterious impact of the descent into intellectual conformism, by pointing out the corresponding decline of King’s in the university rankings. Mr Berkhout wishes to raise a glass with us on the College moving up (slightly) in the recent QS rankings and its political science rating of 15th best in the world. It should be expected that a Russell Group university located in central London with a venerable tradition, especially in science and medicine, would preserve pockets of accomplishment (the dentistry school is ranked second in the world). We are glad, of course, to extol the examples of scholarly achievement that the university manages to maintain. We look forward to hearing about how King’s performs in the National Student Survey results this year, which will surely confirm the upward trajectory of which Mr Berkhout boasts.

All of that does not, however, negate the point that the institution has regressed from the position that it attained a decade previously. May be Mr Berkhout shares with us a degree of scepticism about the absolute value of world university rankings, but we see the declining performance of King’s as indicative of the long-term effects of the stifling of free speech on campus. If world rankings equate to the stock market of esteem, then King’s has lost nearly half of its value over recent years. If the university sector truly existed in a market where price competition prevailed, then the company board would by now be asking some tough questions of its management.

Overall, Mr Berkhout’s response does not provide much reassurance that King’s has anything but a synthetic commitment to freedom of expression. He does not rebut our argument that the College is succumbing to the tightening grip of cancel culture. And that is the point about cancel culture: it is not a practice, it is the development of an institutional climate that constricts the capacity for free thinking over time. It is not the outward appearance of an institution that holds hundreds of events: it is the hollowed out core on the inside. It is insidious not because it is overt but because it is so underhand. It proceeds slowly, stealthily, and often invisibly. 

Our final remarks in this respect are directed at those in King’s, and elsewhere across the higher education sector, who may sympathise with what we say but choose to keep quiet in the face of creeping cancel culture. It takes some boldness these days to speak up openly and critically. We admit that we fall short on that score. It is a matter of regret that we have lost confidence in the ability of the institution to defend fundamental academic values to the point where we feel the need to write pseudonymously. Make no mistake, though, cancel culture is coming for you. Not speaking up in the hope that it will pass you by is an illusion. It won’t save you. Cancel culture affects everyone, whether they realise it or not. 

If people think about it, they are already in the process of being cancelled. For in refusing to speak out we cancel our voice. We cancel our judgment. We cancel our Enlightenment values of liberty and fairness. We cancel our moral principles. We cancel our humour. We cancel our Christmas drinks. We cancel our right to be taken seriously. We cancel our integrity.

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